It was 6:45 a.m. and Sixta Santiago was still fast asleep when a process server knocked on her door with a 72-hour eviction notice. Mount Sinai Hospital, her East Harlem landlord, wanted her out. Santiago, 63, was furious. She knew she had to relinquish the apartment when she retired from the hospital. But a court order had given her until the end of the month. It was only April 14.
“I slammed the door on him, I was so mad,” she said. “I already wanted to move. Why are you going to hand me this?”
Now she and other tenants are asking Mount Sinai to change the way it does business.
The hospital rents roughly 1,500 Manhattan apartments to its employees—and requires that, when they leave their jobs, they move within 30 days. “The reason we ask departing employees to vacate is because we have a waiting list of employees who need housing,” said Mel Granick, Mount Sinai’s director of public affairs. Santiago, he points out, was granted an additional six months when she couldn’t find housing. “We try to provide a reasonable amount of time,” he said. “We’re the good guys here.”
Yet Santiago, who worked at Mount Sinai for 36 years and lives with her elderly mother, said six months didn’t cut it. Her pension from the hospital combined with her mother’s pension and social security put them over the income limit for public housing but wasn’t enough to cover market-rate rent. With a one-month court extension, Santiago finally found an affordable apartment in the Bronx, just days before her eviction. The third-floor walk-up is hard on her mother, 80-year-old Juana Martinez, but it’s better than nothing, she says.
Hilda Ortiz hopes to avoid moving entirely. She, her husband, daughter and two sons all worked for the hospital and lived in Mount Sinai housing—a stately red brick building on East 97th Street—since 1981. Ortiz, 62, worked in hospital administration for 35 years, before the computer work got too complicated. “Technology is running faster than me,” she said. She retired in January and, like Santiago, was given an extra six months to relocate. But she hasn’t found anything yet. Now living with just her daughter and granddaughter, she plans to move to her son’s basement in New Jersey if she can’t find anything else.
Another former employee, Fernando Varella, has spent the last year couch surfing while he looks for a new place. Varella, 53, was an air conditioner mechanic at Mount Sinai for 16 years; then he was injured on the job. When he and the hospital differed on just how injured he was, he lost both his job and his apartment. “Mount Sinai hasn’t shown any compassion towards me,” he said.
Peter Santiago, political director of ACORN Bronx/Manhattan, is organizing Mount Sinai’s employee residents to fight for more time and relocation assistance or, better yet, leases that aren’t tied to employment. “We worked really hard to get that little piece of turf called El Barrio,” he said. “It’s not easy to find an apartment. Where are low-income people supposed to go?”
Kenneth Rosenfeld, director of legal services at Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, said he’s seen similar cases among employees of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Washington Heights. The larger question, he said, is whether staff housing serves the city at large. “I can’t blame a hospital from wanting secure housing for their workers, but they’re contributing to the problem as well,” he said. “They are actively removing rent-regulated affordable housing from the general population in areas that can ill afford to lose it.”
Research assistance by Bennett Baumer.